ACCEPT CHALLENGING ASSIGNMENTS
You can build muscles through habitual rigorous exercise. Aristotle teaches that you can also develop moral character—by habitually striving to think and act virtuously—in the right way, at the right time, in the right place, to a right or good end. Through deliberate, habitual practice, you can develop your disposition to act according to a virtuous standard—toward excellence. On the other hand, just as the slothful couch potato can see his muscles atrophy, even a moral person can grow less virtuous or even vicious by giving in to temptations to act selfishly or according to other vicious behaviors.
One exercise for developing virtue is that of accepting challenging assignments.
>>How can young people develop?
The answer is illustrated by following story about the musician Ignace Jan Paderewski. One evening a mother brought her fidgety, squirming nine-year-old to one of Paderewski’s concerts in the hope that her son would be encouraged to practice the piano, if he could just hear the great musician at the keyboard.
Prior to Paderewski’s entrance, the audience buzzed with anticipation. But the young fidgety boy could stay seated no longer. He slipped from his seat and climbed onto the huge stage to investigate the ebony concert grand Steinway and its leather stool. The sophisticated audience didn’t much notice when the boy sat down at the piano stool. But when he began to play “Chopsticks,” the crowd was startled. Hundreds of frowning faces pointed in his direction. Irritated and embarrassed, they began to shout:
“Get that boy away from there!”
“Who’d bring a kid that young in here?”
“Somebody stop him!”
Backstage, the master overheard the sounds out front and quickly realized what was happening. Hurriedly, he grabbed his coat and rushed toward the stage. Without one word of announcement he stooped over behind the boy, reached around both sides, and began to improvise a countermelody to harmonize with and enhance “Chopsticks.” As the two of them played together, Paderewski kept whispering words of encouragement in the boy’s ear, challenging him to play it well (related by Charles Swindoll, as reported in Miazza, 2011).
This story is an example of what Kouzes and Posner (2004) teach. Teachers, work supervisors, or parents can likewise challenge their charges or subordinates to succeed, directing them toward small wins and encouraging them to learn from their mistakes.
>>But what about adults?
Character can be developed by adults, as well as by young children. Psychological research by James Rest et al. (1986) finds that moral development continues throughout formal education–particularly among young adults when they are challenged to leave their comfort zones. Not only can socialization neutralize and repress a person’s moral character (Bellah et al., 1985), it can have positive influence, as well. And the formation, refinement, and modification of a person’s operational value system—the attitudes and beliefs that motivate conduct—are ongoing processes throughout one’s life (Josephson, 1988, p. 28).
As an adult, you should cultivate the ground for your own development by welcoming and even seeking out new and testing workplace assignments. This is not to say you should go to the extreme. It is important to learn to say no as well as to say yes to requests, resisting the temptation to try anything and everything to the point of exhaustion and frustration. Moreover, you should avoid assignments that go against your ethical compass. And if you are already engaged in a task that stretches you mentally, physically, ethically, and spiritually, you might have to decline or postpone additional new challenges until you overcome the first one.
Nevertheless, you need to accept some challenges–even risky and thus frightening ones. Your overall character will be enhanced as you labor outside your comfort zone. You will become more of a person having the moral character fit to lead.
Note: Future blogs will briefly discuss additional habitual practices that can help you promote your character development.
Bellah, R. et al. (1985). Habits of the Heart. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Josephson, M. (1988). “Teaching Ethical Decision Making and Principled Reasoning.” Ethics: Easier Said Than Done.” 1, 27-33.
Kouzes, J. and B. Posner, eds. (2004). Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Miazza, H. (2011). The Reveille. Jackson, MS.
Rest, J. et al. (1986). Moral Development: Advances in Research and Theory. NY: Praeger.
This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.